The Wonk Shop Behind the G-20’s Most Ambitious Climate Goal

Behind every world-changing national commitment to fight climate change stands a team of professional nerds who make sure the numbers add up.

In the U.K., that team is called the Climate Change Committee. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just accepted the CCC’s advice to cut climate pollution by 68% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, the most ambitious emissions-slashing goal among G-20 countries.

The Wonk Shop Behind the G-20’s Most Ambitious Climate Goal

In a letter to U.K. Energy Minister Alok Sharma dated Dec. 3, CCC Chairman Lord Deben wrote that this "trajectory for U.K. emissions is eminently achievable, provided effective policies are introduced across the economy without delay,” adding that “these would bring significant benefits for the U.K.’s economic recovery.” 

Inside the CCC, the mood on finding out that Johnson had accepted the recommendation was "happy amazement," said Mike Thompson, director of analysis at the "geeky analytical body," as he calls it. Last month, Johnson also accepted the CCC's advice to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine cars starting 2030.

Established by an act of Parliament in 2008, the CCC is made up of nine senior experts—engineers, scientists, economists, and private-sector doyens—who work with a 35-member staff to produce advice, assessments, and annual reports that can each run to hundreds of pages. By bringing together wonks from far-flung disciplines, the committee is able to achieve a systemic view on the U.K.’s progress against climate change.

The law establishing the CCC also required that the U.K.’s secretary of state for energy respond to the committee's proposed carbon budgets and other reports—and, where there are differences between its advice and the government's policy, explain them. 

All CCC’s reports are published to the public in addition to the government; that and the required response pressure leaders to take the recommendations seriously. Piers Forster, a CCC member, is a professor of climate physics and director of the University of Leeds’ Priestley Centre. Knowing that his recommendations will be listened to no matter which party is in power, he said, "gives the opportunity for industry and different parts of the country to really make some longer-term choices.”

“The committee is a lot more fun” than standard climate-research working groups, he added.

Other countries have copied the U.K.’s good idea and created CCC-like bodies of their own, including Canada, Chile, Finland, France, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden. The idea has been so popular, in fact, that the U.K. government now funds a small CCC team to advise other countries on how to create a body like itself. France’s committee even shares a member with the U.K.: Corinne Le Quéré of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, a partnership among a handful of universities in the U.K. and China. 

Some countries lack the funding to back a CCC-like group to the extent that would drive meaningful progress; others lack the political will. Crucially, Thompson said, Britons across the political spectrum have a strong desire to see action on climate issues. That means “the soft power of a body like ours is quite high.”

The U.S. federal government, by contrast, has no similar structure. Its National Academy of Sciences supplies critical independent scientific research to any part of the federal government that needs it, but without a structure that guarantees Congress or the White House will truly grapple with it—or even read. “The CCC’s exact model may not be for everybody,” said Thompson. And yet, he said, at least six states, including Montana, New York, and Pennsylvania, have created something like the CCC.

The CCC’s fingerprints on the U.K.’s latest announcement is a reminder that even enormous amounts of world-class scientific research in and of itself won’t cause policy to just happen. Without a coordinated push to make sure it’s heard, the facts of the matter can be lost in translation.

Eric Roston writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming. Akshat Rathi writes the Net Zero newsletter on the intersection of climate science and emission-free tech. 

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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